The Who, the What, and the How of Policymaking in Scotland: Reflections on the Introduction to Policy in Scotland Workshop

What exactly do we mean by “policy”? What role does science play in its formulation? How can scientists effectively communicate with policymakers? What do policymakers want from scientists? And does this work the same way in Holyrood as it does in Westminster?

All of these questions and more were answered – some with more difficulty than others – during the BES Scottish Policy Group’s inaugural “Introduction to Policy in Scotland” workshop held in the stunning surroundings of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland on 2October 2014. Resisting the temptation to spend the whole day panda-watching (that’s what coffee breaks are for….), over thirty ecologists, working in both research and practice, but predominantly in the early stages of their careers, gathered for an eye-opening insight into the world of policy.

The morning saw our panel of expert speakers offer a suite of unique perspectives based on their considerable experience working in policy: Graeme Cook, Head of Research and Enquiries at the Scottish Parliament Information Centre; Neil Ritchie of the Scottish Government; Maggie Gill, Professor of Integrated Land Use at the University of Aberdeen and former Chief Scientific Adviser for Rural Affairs and the Environment to the Scottish Government; Ian Bainbridge, Head of Science at Scottish Natural Heritage; and Andy Myles, Parliamentary Officer at Scottish Environment Link. While each offered different insights into the policy process, a number of common threads ran through their insights.

Front and centre throughout the day was an emphasis on communication. If cutting-edge research or crucial evidence is not communicated in an effective and appropriate way, it will fall on deaf ears. For ecologists engaging with policymakers, this means mastering the art of simplifying complexity. Policymakers neither want nor need extensively detailed information. They want digestible, bite-sized chunks that summarise the most important information in a short, accessible manner – a two-page briefing, not a two-hour scientific lecture. They need conclusions, not a lengthy methodological treatise.

Second, it is vital that scientists spend some time familiarising themselves with how policy works. An awareness of the differences between government (developing and implementing policy) and parliament (legislating and scrutinising the work of government) is vital, as is knowledge of the different political processes and the appropriate channels to engage with. In Scotland, environmental policy is largely devolved to Holyrood, where parliamentary committees are strong and offer an accessible means of engagement. On occasions, engaging directly with parliament or government may not be the most effective way to influence; working with learned societies or NGOs can provide another route.

However, it is important to recognise that science is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to policymaking. It is not simply the case that communicating the evidence effectively and finding the right route in will lead to a change of course. Science is a key part of the policy-development process, but so are ethics, political philosophy, societal values and political judgement. As such, engagement between scientists and policymakers cannot be a one-way process, and creating fora for genuine knowledge exchange, where the two groups can build relationships and learn to see the world from one another’s perspective is crucial. Science advisers in particular can play an important role in bridging the gap between scientists and policymakers.

Post-lunch, and post-pandas, participants reconvened to think about how they might put these lessons into practice, working on a group exercise to develop the outlines of a policy briefing for MSPs on the topic of synthetic biology and then reflecting on their own personal action plans and areas for development, with additional inspiration from two BES  members who have seized the opportunities available for engaging with policy: Rob Brooker, Chair of the BES Scottish Policy Group, and Danny Heptinstall, the most recent recipient of the BES POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) Fellowship. The attendees left enthused and inspired, with a sense that engaging with policymakers is both possible and achievable.

The BES Policy Team offers a number of ways for BES members and other ecologists to engage with policy. You could join our Scottish Policy Group, add your details to our expertise database, apply to one of our training schemes or just get in touch to find out more. You can download the presentations from the workshop here.